What Was the Pharisees’ Mistake?

Yesterday was Transgender Day of Remembrance 2015. I observed this day because I recently learned that my 27-year-old son is transitioning to become my 27-year-old daughter, which she says more clearly matches who she really is.

I was pretty shaken by the news, but fortunately, she got to tell me in person, so I could feel in my heart that, regardless of gender, this is still the person I love with all my heart. Their essential being hasn’t changed. I haven’t lost my child.

And I’ve done some reading on verbal abuse. I think it’s abusive to tell someone that I know better than they do what’s going on inside their own head. If my kid tells me that living as a woman better fits the person they are inside, I am going to listen. Because no one knows better than they do what is going on inside their own head. (Some would say it’s not abusive, it’s just invalidating. Either way, it’s not very nice.)

This news came last summer. Last week, I got to spend some time with my new daughter in Portland, Oregon, and with a trip to the Oregon coast. It was a lovely, wonderful time. She is very happy about transitioning. And I still think she’s one of the most wonderful people God ever created.

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Not all my friends and family members, however, think I should be happy that my child is happy.

After all, they are absolutely sure the Bible teaches that changing gender is sinful. They say the gender you appear to be at birth is what you are, because Adam and Eve were male and female. Therefore I should not “go along” with my child’s sin, and I should not “give in” and call them by the new name they have chosen.

Meanwhile, I joined a Mom’s Facebook group for Christian mothers of LGBTQ kids. My transgender daughter is an adult. But many of them have children who are being given messages that they are an abomination and evil. Many tried and tried with prayer to change who they are, only to despair.

I’m coming to think of this not as a simple expression of intolerance but of active harm.

However, though I strongly disagree with their interpretation of Scripture, I feel like I do have some sympathy. I can remember what it was like to look at the world — and the Bible — that way.

You see, I was a teenage Pharisee.

Okay, I was also a child Pharisee and an adult Pharisee. I grew up in a loving Christian home. We went to an evangelical church, and I accepted all the teachings from an early age. I thanked God that I was born into a home where I was taught the Truth. Too bad that everyone who didn’t believe this was going to hell. But it was what they chose by not believing the Truth.

I went to a Christian elementary school. I started in third grade, which was where I met two dear friends who are still among my very best friends today. I went on to a Christian high school and a Christian university. We signed statements of faith as well as codes of conduct where we agreed that we would not do shocking things like smoke, drink alcohol, or dance. And I was happy to sign.

Like a good Pharisee, I memorized Scripture — the entire New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. Now, the real reason I could give significant time to it was that my parents paid me, but I do have to say that memorizing Scripture did me good in spite of myself. Filling my mind with Scripture got it into my heart. And I still love the Bible today.

I married a good Christian man — a fellow student from the university. I was all set to live a good life, pleasing God. Don’t get me wrong — I knew there would be “trials,” but God would get me through. We’d be a nice Christian couple and raise a nice Christian family. And I wasn’t even tempted to bend the rules. No smoking, drinking, or dancing for me, even if I hadn’t signed a code of conduct recently.

But in my memorizing, I noticed something about the Pharisees. They believed they could prove from Scripture that Jesus was not from God. It’s right there in John 9:14 —

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.

My heart goes out to the Pharisees. They thought they had it all figured out. They thought they knew how to please God. They thought they had all their ducks in a row.

They got things in black and white, and they didn’t have to guess if they were doing it right. They knew who was right with God and who was a sinner. They thanked God that they weren’t like those sinners. Hmmmm. Kind of like me.

And then Jesus comes along and says things like this in Matthew 12 —

“If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

That rule, which they’d all worked out? He said it wasn’t the end-all and be-all.

What’s more, he criticized their nice definite lists of rules, the way they clarified things for God. In Matthew 23, he said they missed the point —

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Now, when I was a college student, I used to wonder when my professors presented me with a detailed chart of how the end times were going to go. It seems to me that God doesn’t like to be predictable. Jesus fulfilled prophecy — but he certainly didn’t fulfill it the way those who’d received the prophecies expected the Messiah to fulfill them. What if God was going to deal with prophecies of the end times the same way? What if they aren’t given to us so we can know in black and white exactly what will happen? What if we just need the message of who is going to win?

But I still didn’t see it with the Rules. God lays out in his Word what’s Good and Bad, what’s Right and Wrong. A good Christian believes that and follows those Rules. A good Christian does their best not to sin.

Gradually, over the years, God eased me out of being a Pharisee. He ever-so-gently showed me that maybe the point isn’t the rules, but loving God and loving your neighbor.

One of the earlier things to shake me up was reading George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century preacher. George MacDonald clearly loved the Bible and read it in the original languages — yet he seemed to be teaching that All would (eventually) be saved. How could he believe the Bible, yet teach that?

I tried to set aside my preconceptions and read through the New Testament again — the New Testament that I’d memorized and thought I knew well. I was amazed that this new interpretation flowed much more naturally out of the text! (For more on this see my review of a book by George MacDonald and links to other books at the bottom of the review.)

So — how astonishing that the interpretation of the Bible that I’d grown up with and believed was the Only Saving Truth — was not at all the only possible interpretation, and that there was even one that seemed much better and much more in harmony with God’s love.

Now I still believe that everyone comes to God through Jesus, but that your chance to trust him doesn’t end at death. I believe that hell isn’t punishment, but correction. And though it lasts for eons (the word used in the Greek), it doesn’t last for eternity.

Hell is not senseless, unending vindictive torture. Hell is the length to which a loving God will go to bring his children back to himself.

But wait — that means those people I believe are horrible sinners are going to wind up in heaven with me.

Okay, that shakes up my way of looking at people.

That means maybe God will bring other people to himself using a different path than the one that led me to him.

And . . . just maybe . . . it’s possible that sometimes my interpretation of Scripture is wrong.

George MacDonald also cautions his readers against putting their trust in the Bible, when our trust should be in Jesus.

Because we aren’t reading the original language, and even if we were, our interpretation can vary.

It seems to me, that’s what the Pharisees did.

Now, in the case of lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, and queer people — there are definitely other ways to interpret the Bible.

Here’s a nice link with an alternative view. Or there’s an outstanding book written by an Episcopal bishop, God Believes in Love.

And what, after all, does Jesus say are the “more important matters of the law”? Doesn’t he say in Matthew 22 what’s most important:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

If Jesus’ words aren’t enough, Paul echoes it in Romans 13 —

The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

It seems to me that if your interpretation of Scripture results in actions that don’t seem very loving — maybe there’s something wrong with your interpretation of Scripture.

Do we really want to put more faith in the Bible — or our interpretation of it — than we do in Jesus and his Spirit who lives in us?

Shouldn’t we be concerned when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that what someone else is doing is sin?

Even if we’re right and it is sin, that brings us to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 —

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

And how does Jesus deal with sinners? Does he confront their sin first? Not so much. (Religious people who did not believe they were sinners, yes.) Look at his interaction with Matthew, partying with his friends, in Matthew 9. Look at the entire chapter of John 4 where Jesus shocks his disciples by talking with an immoral Samaritan woman at a well. Here’s what he tells her:

You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.

Do you hear a word of condemnation in that? (She didn’t seem to. She changes the subject but continues talking with him.) Sure, I hope for her sake that she found real and lasting love later in her life. But at that moment? Her lifestyle, sinful or not, is not the point. Jesus loves her and wants to give her living water.

***

Now, brothers and sisters, I’m trying to be clear that I can easily remember thinking very differently about this. I’ve gone more quickly down this path because now it affects one of the people I love most in all the world.

But it does make me sad that my new daughter doesn’t naturally look to Christians for love and acceptance. And it makes me sad that Christians aren’t urging me to love my kid all the more.

So let me humbly suggest some questions:

Does my interpretation of Scripture fit with the principles of mercy, love, and faithfulness in this matter?

In what ways can I love my lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer neighbors as myself?

Am I straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel?

And to any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer people who may be reading this post: God loves you. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Let me close with words from Romans 8:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that, Dear Reader, includes you.

8 Responses to “What Was the Pharisees’ Mistake?”

  1. This was a very powerful post. Thank you for sharing your heart and your journey with with the blogosphere! I have been watching as my own parents walk the road you are walking. I’ve had to wrestle with my own sense of shame and doubt as I sought to reconcile my faith, my body and my identity. We are all on a journey and sometimes the only things they have in common are that God has got us and that we can and need to love each other through it. I look froward to sharing more of this journey with you!

  2. Maggie Belsan says:

    Good for you, Sondy. I used to have God all boxed in, too, but it is so good to just free him to be in everyone and in Himself. He blesses your daughter and is joyful that she is becoming who she was born to be. Rejoice.

  3. Administrator says:

    Thanks, Maggie! Yes, I think a good response is rejoicing.

  4. Administrator says:

    Thanks, Laura! God has got us! Yes!

  5. Well done, Sondy! I appreciate and identify with your growth and transformation in this journey. Just keep loving that daughter of yours–extravagantly and completely–just as Jesus does!

  6. Administrator says:

    Thanks, Brenda! Good words… Just keep loving…

  7. Kevin B says:

    Sondy,
    Thank you for a very well thought out piece of work. It seems to me that one of our primary jobs here is to get our own house in order — and it seems like you have been thinking very deeply on yours.

    When I think about the notion of fear and trembling before God — I often think of it in the context of what you have been saying here. The biggest problem that I — or any Pharisee — might have, is that I begin to think that my little mind can encompass all of the wonder of Jesus when the reality is that I barely know him — and as I have come to know him — my ability to comprehend his lessons has drastically changed.

    As a child for example, I had the hardest time understanding the story of the prodigal son… later I came to realize that all of us are the prodigal son… even later I came to realize that the story is not really about the sons at all — but about the love of the Father…

    I point this out because my original interpretations were not completely wrong — they were just incomplete…

    I spent years trying to understand the story of Job… I realize now that the story of Job and the story of Jesus have interesting parallels that are important for my life — something I would not have considered without deep reflection.

    Again, my original interpretations were incomplete — reflecting my own need for education and growth.

    I deeply appreciate your post in part because is prompts all of us to think more deeply about our faith and our convictions.

    What are we to do when we encounter something which concerns and confuses us?

    I think we need to turn to Jesus for his love and guidance.

    How do we do that? There are lots of ways — but coming to him with a contrite heart — fearfully admitting our own sinful tendencies — seems to be to be the best approach. And it seems to me that this is what you have done in your post.

    Thanks again for sharing it.

  8. Administrator says:

    Thanks, Kevin. Indeed. I think the whole thing about being a Pharisee — It’s so *nice* to think we’ve figured out exactly what we need to do to please God. Then Jesus comes along and shakes that up. But that’s a good thing.

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